Mitt Romney will have many opportunities over the next three months to demonstrate to voters that they should choose him over Barack Obama: his acceptance speech at the Republican convention, the three presidential debates, major policy addresses, and more. But it may be that nothing will speak louder than his selection of a running mate.
Voters seem to care. In a recent CBS News/New York Times poll, 74 percent of registered voters said the selection of a running mate will matter—48 percent saying it matters “somewhat” and 26 percent saying it matters “a lot.” In a close election, as this one seems likely to be, Romney’s pick could help determine the outcome.
It’s not the first time we’ve said it, but it could well be the last: Go bold, Mitt! Pick Paul Ryan, the Republican party’s intellectual leader, the man who’s laid out the core of the post-Obama policy agenda and gotten his colleagues in Congress to sign on to it. Or pick Marco Rubio, the GOP’s most gifted young politician, the man who embodies what is best about the Tea Party and a vision of a broad-based Republican governing majority of the future. Barack Obama was right about this (if only this): Modern democratic politics is about hope and change. Ryan and Rubio, more than anyone else, embody Republican hopes and conservative change.
But let’s descend from the Olympian heights of national aspiration to the bloody crossroads of practical politics. Here too the case for Rubio or Ryan is compelling.
On April 15, Romney attended a private fundraiser in the backyard of a large home in Palm Beach, Florida. His remarks, not intended for public consumption, were nonetheless overheard by reporters traveling with him. And they were blunt. “We have to get Hispanics to vote for our party,” he said. Romney pointed to polls showing him trailing badly among Hispanic voters and said that if those numbers don’t change, “it spells doom for us.”
Those numbers haven’t changed. An NBC/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo poll released in late July shows Obama with a 67-23 percent advantage over Romney among Hispanics. Last week, a Latino Decisions poll had Obama leading Romney 63-27 percent among Hispanics in five swing states with significant Hispanic populations—Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Nevada, and Virginia.
That’s worrisome. But the core of the problem is Florida—a must-win state for Romney. According to Latino Decisions, Romney trails Obama among Latino Floridians 53-37. (Even more, among voters who say they’re “certain” to vote for their candidate, Obama leads 49-29.) This kind of margin might well doom Romney.
In 2010, by contrast, Marco Rubio won 55 percent of Florida Hispanics. Rick Scott, who was probably helped by having Rubio running with him, won 50 percent of the state’s Hispanic voters in his successful bid to become governor. Even in 2008, while losing Florida 51-48, John McCain won 42 percent of the Hispanic vote. In 2004, George W. Bush defeated John Kerry among Hispanics in Florida by 56-44 percent. (Those numbers were no doubt inflated because Bush’s brother Jeb was the popular governor at the time.)
The bottom line: Mitt Romney almost certainly will not win Florida if he wins just 37 percent of the Hispanic vote there. And Mitt Romney almost certainly will not be president if he doesn’t win Florida.
What to do? The Latino Decisions poll offers one possible answer: Pick Marco Rubio as your running mate. Some 31 percent of Florida Hispanics say they are more likely to vote for Romney if Rubio is on the ticket (47 percent say it would make no difference, and just 17 percent say it would make them less likely).
Rubio’s appeal goes well beyond Hispanics and well beyond Florida, of course. At a recent appearance in Nevada on behalf of Romney, Rubio drew nearly 1,000 voters to his former elementary school, with lines out the door. His autobiography, An American Son, spent several weeks near the top of the New York Times bestseller list. A recent survey of Illinois delegates to the Republican convention found that nearly half of them want Romney to pick Rubio.
The two main arguments against Rubio—he’s too inexperienced and he hasn’t been adequately vetted—strike us as weak. It’s true that Rubio has spent less than two years in the Senate. But he’s hardly green. Rubio served in the Florida House of Representatives for eight years, the final two as speaker. In his short time in the U.S. Senate, he has distinguished himself as a hard worker and a serious foreign policy thinker. He has participated in dozens of intelligence briefings—more than Barack Obama before he was nominated.
Moreover, Rubio has probably been subject to more intense critical scrutiny than anyone else Romney is considering. In his 2010 race, Rubio was the subject of massive opposition research conducted by his Republican opponent, the sitting governor of Florida, Charlie Crist; the National Republican Senatorial Committee (which supported Crist); his Democratic opponent, Representative Kendrick Meek; and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. The campaign was covered extensively in the Florida press and nationally. Rubio sat for interviews or debates with David Gregory, Candy Crowley, Chris Wallace, Bob Schieffer, and many others. More recently, Rubio was the subject of a book by a Washington Post reporter who uncovered nothing that would disqualify him from higher office. Indeed, the book was on balance flattering. And though Rubio’s name has been mentioned in connection with the case against former Florida GOP chairman Jim Greer, a nearly two-year investigation by the Florida Ethics Commission found that Rubio had done nothing wrong. Rubio would also have to expect questions about his troubled friend David Rivera. But the charge here is only one of too much loyalty to a friend, not of wrongdoing on Rubio’s part.
The moment he’s picked, Rubio will become by far the most prominent Hispanic politician in the country. And in a contest largely about competing visions of the American dream, against a president who has minimized the importance of hard work as a road to success, Rubio’s personal story, of a father who worked as a bartender and a mother as a maid to provide opportunities for their children, would provide a powerful counterargument.
The case for Paul Ryan is equally compelling. Since 1999, Ryan has represented a swing district in southeastern Wisconsin—a seat held for two decades by Democrat Les Aspin. And even as he has undertaken a crusade to reform the entitlement programs thought for so long to be politically untouchable, Ryan has won reelection in his purple district with more than 60 percent of the vote six consecutive times. Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, who believes that Obama will win Wisconsin, nonetheless acknowledged last week that putting Ryan on the ticket would make “the southeastern part of the state probably more competitive.”
A recent PPP poll seems to confirm this. President Obama leads Mitt Romney in Wisconsin 50-44 percent and is, according to the accompanying analysis, “the clear favorite to win the state.” But, the analysis continues, “one thing that could make this state look like much more of a toss up is if Romney chooses Paul Ryan as his running mate.” In that scenario, Obama’s lead shrinks to just 47-46 percent. “Ryan’s presence has the effect of further unifying the GOP base around Romney and also helping to bring some independent voters into the fold.” Romney’s internal polling, we are told, shows a similar shift in Wisconsin with Ryan on the ticket.
Like Rubio, Ryan has appeal beyond his home state. As Rubio would help with a key demographic group, Hispanics, Ryan would help in key states in the Midwest. And he has national appeal. Earlier this spring, he traveled around the country with RNC chairman Reince Priebus raising some $21 million for the RNC Presidential Trust. Ryan has raised $4.2 million for his congressional race this year and $4.3 million for his Prosperity PAC—with contributions coming from all 50 states. That’s more money than some Republican presidential candidates raised.
And, of course, putting Ryan on the ticket would ensure that the presidential race is a contest of ideas, not just personalities. In a country where conservatives outnumber liberals two-to-one and where President Obama is thought to be more likable than Mitt Romney by huge margins (+30 according to USA Today/Gallup, +38 in the Washington Post/ABC poll), this strikes us as a good idea.
Of course Democrats will demagogue the entitlement reform proposals in Ryan’s budget. But they’re going to do that anyway. Romney and Republicans already own those reforms—97 percent of congressional Republicans voted for them, and Romney has embraced them without much qualification. “I think it’d be marvelous if the Senate were to pick up Paul Ryan’s budget and adopt it and pass it along to the president,” he said in early April. In late March he declared: “I’m very supportive of the Ryan budget.”
If Ryan’s budget is going to be a central part of the debate over the next three months, who better to explain and defend it than Paul Ryan?
It’s become conventional wisdom that Ryan and Rubio would be “bold” picks, while other choices like Ohio senator Rob Portman and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty are “safe.” Perhaps. But what looks safe can be risky. Portman, a good man and respected public servant, was George W. Bush’s budget director. Pawlenty’s presidential campaign was a disaster. The 2010 election was the best for Republicans in a long time. Ryan and Rubio embody the spirit of 2010. Pawlenty and Portman don’t.
But beyond all of the calculations—beyond demography, geography, and the polls—is the most compelling reason for Romney to pick Ryan or Rubio: Doing so would signal that Romney understands the magnitude of the problems facing the country and would demonstrate that he has the will to solve them. It would suggest that Romney knows this is a big moment, and that he’s willing to run a big campaign. And at a time when the country so desperately needs real leadership, Romney would make clear that he’s ready to provide it by picking either Ryan or Rubio.
Which of the two should Romney choose? One of us slightly prefers Ryan, the other Rubio. But this we can say in unison and with conviction: Go for the gold, Mitt! Ryan or Rubio!